Today I have the pleasure of sharing some thoughts about the latest (big) book from Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell, titled Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. Campbell is a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School (North Carolina, USA) and is well known for having already published a number of popular and scholarly works on Paul, including a highly accessible account of Paul’s life and theological development, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, and a groundbreaking (and massive) scholarly treatment, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.

Given that Pauline Dogmatics weighs in at over 700 pages, it would be impossible in the scope of a single short review to do anything more than briefly skim over its surface and offer a few high-level observations – so that’s what I’ll attempt to do.

What is Pauline Dogmatics all about? Put simply, it is Campbell’s attempt to construct a full-orbed theology of Paul built on Paul’s writings as they come to us in the New Testament. Campbell himself describes it as his “basic account of Paul’s deepest and most important theological convictions, their ideal coordination, and the further steps we need to take to bring those convictions into a constructive conversation with our modern locations” (p. 1). It’s not uncommon for preachers and others with an interest in biblical application to rummage about in Paul’s writings in an attempt to work out what his position was on this or that theological issue (justification, the role of men and women in society and the church, eschatology, etc.). The problem with that kind of approach is that it’s all too easy to end up with a grab-bag of disconnected bits and pieces of theology that are more likely to be shaped by the reader’s own biases than by whatever underlying framework Paul’s writings were grounded in. The mission Campbell sets himself here – and it’s an ambitious one – is to recover and reconstruct that underlying framework so that each and every piece of Paul’s theology can be seen in proper perspective as a component of a coherent overarching theology and worldview.

The other thing to say about the overall aim of the book is that the theology it seeks to construct is unashamedly pastoral and missional in orientation. As a missionary and church planter, Paul’s theology provided a solid platform from which he could share the gospel with gentiles and upon which he could build missional communities. That being the case, Pauline Dogmatics is a work of practical theology and will be of particular benefit to those with an interest in forming and participating in gospel-centred communities (aka churches).

If Pauline Dogmatics has a recurring theme, it is that if you want to know God, your theology must start and end with Jesus and him alone. Like Paul, Campbell is rigorous – nay, relentless – in his insistence that truth can only be known by starting with the apocalyptic revelation of Jesus Christ. To put it another way, if you want to construct a Pauline (and thus Christian) theology, you have to begin with Jesus and work backwards from there. To begin from any other location (history, philosophy, ethics, etc.) is to fall into the trap of foundationalism, which Campbell defines as “our provision of a different foundation for truth from the one that God has laid for us in Jesus, and hence a structure that we ultimately build for ourselves” (p. 37). I don’t think I’ve ever read a theology book in which the author is so unremittingly focused on bringing the reader back time and time again to Christ as the sole reliable foundation for knowing God. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

There are two other key things to say about Pauline Dogmatics that perhaps set it apart from most other books about Paul and his theology.  The first is that Campbell’s approach is deeply interdisciplinary: as he shepherds us through Paul’s theological worldview and its implications, he goes to great lengths to draw on a host of other voices and sources in addition to his own insight. These include not only theological and ethical touchstones like Barth and Hauerwas but also historians, sociologists, philosophers, cultural commentators, psychologists… I could go on. Each of the book’s twenty-nine chapters concludes with a brief survey of key reading pertinent to the ground covered and further reading for the more adventurous, followed by a bibliography. In this way, Pauline Dogmatics can serve as not only a highly comprehensive standalone resource but also a reliable jumping-off point for those wishing to explore further on any given topic.

The second key thing to point out is that, rather than simply trying to discern what Paul was trying to say to the churches he wrote to and why, Campbell also wants – as far as is reasonably possible – to bring Paul’s convictions to bear on today’s world. To do so, he does not shy away from homing in on areas where Paul’s theology seems to lack consistency and/or where Paul does not, perhaps, push his Christ-centred hermeneutic all the way to its logical conclusion. One obvious example of such an area would be the issue of slavery, which Paul does not appear to challenge even though, from our perspective and with the benefit of two thousand years’ hindsight, it seems to grate against his theological convictions about equality and inclusivity. Another that will be of much more interest to most readers is gender and sexuality. Here, while Campbell defends the importance of covenant faithfulness as manifested in marriage, he challenges patriarchy and argues strongly in favour of same-sex marriage as a valid covenantal expression. These are just two examples of how Campbell “allows Paul to interpret Paul” (anyone who feels uncomfortable about this kind of hermeneutic should perhaps consider that it is arguably nothing more than an extension of the long-established approach of allowing scripture to interpret scripture).

There’s much more I could say about the subject matter covered, but this is meant to be a short review, not a critical essay or detailed guide. So I’ll limit myself to pointing out that Pauline Dogmatics also offers by far the best and most thorough explanation I’ve yet come across of why purely salvation-historical accounts of the gospel (wherein Jesus inaugurates a “Plan B” to rescue the world after “Plan A” is derailed) and supersessionism (where, in Campbell’s words, “Christianity is a later, superior version of whatever Judaism was originally, growing out of the obviously inferior state of Judaism” [p. 654]) are deeply problematic and must be rigorously avoided.

Despite its vast scope and ambition, Pauline Dogmatics is eminently readable. Its clear structure (twenty-nine chapters divided up into four major sections), as well as making it relatively easy to keep track of where you’ve been and where you’re headed, also means you can easily dip in and out of specific chapters for a refresher or a deeper dive into a given topic. Campbell’s style is accessible throughout: he mostly manages to avoid scholarly jargon and doesn’t make too many assumptions about what the reader should or shouldn’t already know. Oh, and one other thing: this book uses footnotes, not endnotes; anyone who’s read many scholarly works will be only too familiar with the frustration of being forced to use multiple bookmarks and flip back and forth between the chapter you’re reading and the accompanying notes. A small point, perhaps, but one that makes reading a substantial and heavily referenced book like this much less onerous to read.

In summary, Campbell has done us a great service in Pauline Dogmatics. It is a bold, ambitious, practical and, in places, exhilarating read. It ought to be required reading for any serious student of Paul – which really means anyone serious about understanding the majority theology of the New Testament.

[Pauline Dogmatics is published by Eerdmans. I was kindly provided with a review copy by the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.]